As Pakistan turns 75, will its people finally rise above the fault lines?

We must turn our gaze to the natural environment and recognise the imperative of building a progressive and shared vision of the future.
Published August 13, 2022

On the 76th anniversary of its founding as a modern nation-state, Pakistan’s struggles appear unending. Will we ever move beyond the logic of a rentier state run by an unrepresentative military-bureaucratic oligarchy more answerable to foreign patrons than its own people? Can we generate the political will to enforce redistribution of wealth and power so as to change our course? In a polity riven by seemingly interminable conflict, will the state and its official ideologues continue peddling obsolete ideologies about an indivisible Muslim nation?

Such big-picture questions will likely frame political and intellectual debates about Pakistan for the foreseeable future. But it is all too often the case that macro-level commentary about society, economy and polity ignores the subjectivities of the very people in whose name the state and/or the ruling class claims to operate.

In what follows, I offer both a taxonomy of the various social groups and forces that constitute ‘the Pakistani people’ and some reflections on our putatively collective future.

Youth will rule the world

In case anyone needs reminding, Pakistan is one of the youngest countries in the world. An estimated 65 per cent of our population — approximately 150 million people — is below the age of 23. Meeting their education, health, employment and other basic needs, including that of a dignified life, must inform any meaningful political force worth its name. Perhaps even more urgent is the imperative of ensuring that many of our already fragile ecosystems do not collapse entirely — young people will bear the brunt of such eventualities.

Naively optimistic slogans about the youth bulge offering a great opportunity, especially in an age of digitalisation, are neither here nor there. A rapidly growing segment of our youthful population is already online, and tends mostly towards atomisation on the one hand, and hateful herd behaviour on the other.

The rot, however, precedes digitalisation. Up to 25 million school-going children are either begging on the streets or engaged in other forms of child labour. Children who do get to attend school are subjected to ideologically-doctored curricula and a culture of rote learning that not only stifles their creative impulses but makes them fodder for hateful politics as they grow older.

Finally, the relatively small percentage of young people who acquire higher education are like assembly-line workers securing increasingly meaningless degree certification — the job market is already highly saturated and in any case, favours the already influential who can deploy rishwat or sifarish.

As more and more are confronted with ecological disasters due to capitalist ‘development’, this mass of already frustrated and parochially-minded youth will militate towards no-holds-barred internecine conflict.

Already this year, we have experienced a heavily curtained spring season and one of the hottest and driest April-May periods in history; unseasonal glacier melts in Gilgit-Baltistan and multiple bridge collapses on the KKH up to Kohistan; devastating monsoon-related flooding in Karachi as well as remote parts of Balochistan and the Siraiki belt; and acute shortages of water in Sindh, especially downstream of the Kotri Barrage.

Pakistan’s young people will figuratively come to ‘rule the world’ by dint of generational change, but will they learn to rule in different ways to the current crop of generals and political opportunists? The only hope is to inculcate progressive ideas within our youth to avert the worst-case scenario and instead forge an alternative future, but time is short.

All animals are equal but …

For a progressive alternative to take root within young people, we must first acknowledge that they are divided along many fault lines — only then is it possible to chart a future with popular support while healing historical wounds.

Arguably, the most significant of these fault lines is ethnic-national. The military establishment and many mainstream politicians appear to have been reluctant from the very beginning to recognise the demands for dignity, resources and political freedom of all of the distinct ethnic-nations that comprise Pakistan. In fact, the popular sentiment is that they have relied too much — and continue to do so today — on the consent they generate from the majoritarian Punjabi ethnic group whilst paying pittance to Balochis, Sindhis, Pashtuns, Siraikis and many others.

Progressive-minded youth offer an alternative. At its zenith, the youth-led Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), for example, tried to make common cause with youth from other ethnic-national backgrounds even as it foregrounded the sufferings of Pashtun tribal districts under the ‘war on terror’ regime. But the PTM was met with state repression and the age-old accusation of ‘foreign conspiracy’. One of its primary leaders, Ali Wazir, has been in jail for two years in multiple trumped up cases.

Baloch youth are arguably even more disaffected, and there is little sign of let up in the heinous policy of enforced disappearances. It would certainly appear as if the establishment — and the mainstream politicians who dare not challenge it — are unwilling to change historical policies vis-à-vis Baloch youth. This will only alienate them further and engender more hateful conflict. Neither will other young people who perceive themselves to be second-class citizens, nay colonial subjects, become more ‘loyal’ if things stay as they are.

Punjabis will remain the overwhelming majority of Pakistan’s population in years and decades to come. In the current conjuncture, most Punjabi youth are picking sides between the PML-N and PTI even as the establishment-centric political-economic order remains largely unchallenged. The challenge of inculcating alternative ideas to forge a shared future is therefore most acute in Punjab, otherwise our ethnic peripheries will continue to burn.

Defeating majoritarian tyranny

In fact, Punjab also represents the primary support base of millenarian groups like the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). Whether their aspirations for a ‘better life’ are unmet or because they are simply predisposed to the highly masculine and forceful rhetoric of figures like Khadim Rizvi, records reflect that young men in Punjab, including those who have acquired secondary and tertiary education, have been seen to deploy violence at will against minorities.

The phenomenon of religious militancy is certainly not limited to Punjab — the TLP has garnered support amongst Sindhi and Muhajir youth well, while the Taliban are resurgent in Pashtun areas — but it would be foolish not to pay attention to the Punjab as the primary repository of majoritarianism.

Read more: Militancy redux

On the other hand, the fear that exists within the heads and hearts of young people hailing from minoritarian religious groups in Pakistan cannot be understated. They are forced to demonstrate that they are ‘Good Muslims’ at every juncture of their lives.

There are some, like Punjabi Christians, for example, that are subjected to religious, caste and class discrimination all at once. Most Punjabi Christian children grow up in katchi abadis that resemble walled ghettoes and go to schools where they are subjected to sub-human status and xenophobic ‘education’. For the most part, they replicate their parents’ lives as domestic servants or sweepers. And then they are regularly evicted from their shanties under the pretext of being ‘illegal encroachers’.

In Punjab and beyond, to imagine a progressive future is to recognise that majoritarian tyranny is not just limited to the articulation of religious or ethnic-national identity but is invariably tinged by caste and class. And then there is gender.

To be a woman in Pakistan

Pakistan today is, in no uncertain terms, one of the most patriarchal societies in the world. Girls, women, trans and non-binary peoples are subjected to myriad forms of domination, discrimination, and sexual violence. That there is today greater disclosure about these everyday realities in our public sphere is an important but ultimately small step towards redressing gendered oppression in all of its various guises.

Like with all other segments of our predominantly young population, girls, women and other oppressed genders are far from a monolith. Their political subjectivities are also highly variegated — the groundbreaking Aurat Marches may have triggered the average Pakistani man most of all, but many women who have imbibed entrenched notions of femininity as well as official state ideology have also expressed visceral opposition.

Beyond culture wars, some argue that Pakistani patriarchy will be most effectively challenged by enhancing women’s participation in the labour force, often invoking Bangladesh as a ‘successful’ case to be emulated.

That girls, women and other oppressed genders need and must be granted greater economic opportunities — and autonomy — is indisputable. But it is important to place the struggles of oppressed genders within the context of the wider challenges faced by all youth, and here I am referring most of all to capitalist ‘development’ and its relationship to climate change.

Furthermore it is worth bearing in mind that patriarchal attitudes and violence in society — within the home, places of religious worship, workplaces and public spaces in general — must be challenged in their own right. Here too, progressive feminist ideas must be demystified and then imbibed by a wide cross-section of society, men and boys most of all. As with all of the other challenges that we face, there is no quick fix here, only a long-term horizon to which we can aspire.

When all is said and done

Of course such long-term horizons will only come to pass if they acquire traction within a wide cross-section of society. It is folly to harbour any expectation that Pakistan’s current ruling elite — including the military establishment and most mainstream political players — will ever subscribe to such progressive visions of the future, the PTI included.

But it is worth dwelling on the PTI briefly because it has successfully mobilised significant numbers of young people over the past decade, particularly in Punjab. That the majority of this newly politicised segment of youth has imbibed relatively superficial ideas and often relies on hateful sloganeering confirms that the PTI is very much part of the problem, rather than a genuine long-term solution.

But the fact that young people are able and willing to demand a stake in politics represents an opening for progressive ideas and, ultimately, a genuine alternative. It is certainly no small task to bring together young people across the ethnic peripheries and metropolitan Pakistan or to transcend other forms of majoritarian tyranny and patriarchal domination. The challenge appears even more daunting when one considers the often reactionary nature of political communication takes in online spaces.

Which is why we must turn our gaze to the natural environment and recognise the imperative of building a progressive and shared vision of the future.

Nature is warning all of us — the younger generations of Pakistanis most of all — that carrying on with business as usual is no longer tenable. The extent to which enough segments of ‘the people’ pay attention to her increasingly forceful reminders will shape our collective future.

Header illustration: chekart/